Two visiting professors to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln discussed the potency and widespread coverage of the memes attributed to the “alt-right,” a white nationalist movement, at the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center on Thursday, Oct. 3.
Heather Woods, an assistant professor of rhetoric and technology at Kansas State University, and Leslie Hahner, an associate professor in communication at Baylor University, talked about how memes have shaped the politics of the past four years. According to the speakers, memes impacted the Russians’ attempt to make a military exercise look like a violent takeover and have influenced the views of presidential candidates.
According to both speakers, some memes made it possible for candidates that are considered by most to be “fringe,” or the most extreme of the group, to be elected. The proclivity of memes, most notably “Pepe the Frog” and his many variations, brought to light more hard-right ideologies.
According to Hahner, the Jade Helm incident of 2015 was when agitators from Russia and the Ukraine made inflammatory memes about how the military was going to invade Texas.
The speakers said Jade Helm was an exercise in conjunction with six branches of the military, totalling about 1,200 personnel in six states. According to Hahner, the memes shared on digital boards like Reddit and 4chan led to coverage on Infowars and Breitbart News, which then led to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott calling in the Texas State Guard to address citizens’ concerns.
Taking this information with them, the Russians started campaigns on their various forums to drum up support for their candidate of choice, Donald Trump, according to Woods.
Woods said the Russians tapped into the usual demographic of the forum-goer — the white, college-aged male — and spread the idea that they are being oppressed by politically correct culture and a wave of immigrants that are coming to take their jobs.
Out of this fear, according to Woods, came two significant events in the “Meme War,” “Gamergate,” which was about the role of women and ethics in games journalism, and “The Fappening,” which was the mass leaking of sensitive images from the phones of well-known celebrities.
These events, according to Woods, brought people of similar right-wing beliefs together, and led to the eventual radicalization of a small sect of forum-goers to make memes that would idealize and glorify fascist ideologies. These memes usually used innocuous images as a template, and then added Nazi iconography or inside jokes and spread them onto more popular social media platforms.
“Pepe” was an integral part of the “alt-right’s” strategy of using memes to get Trump into the White House. Many of these images, according to the speakers, were modified to resemble Hitler, members of the Ku Klux Klan, Donald Trump and various other figures that the “alt-right” deemed significant.
Woods said, early into his campaign, Trump and his compatriots co-opted the “Pepe” imagery, forever bonding him with the face of an arguably cute and seemingly harmless frog.
Both of the speakers said they have ways of figuring out and combating the memes that the “alt-right” use. The problem facing people now, they said, is that they don’t know how to decide which memes are legitimate.
“Today, we don’t have very many campaigns to help us learn to decipher these memes,” Hahner said. “We should take them seriously, that’s the first step. The second is to advocate for structural changes. The third is to learn how to meme in opposition to the ‘alt-right’ symbols that we face today.”